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Older adults at high risk for heat illness

Grandmother walking outside in the sun with her two granddaughters.

Aug. 17, 2019—We're having another long, hot summer. And when the heat is on, the dog days can be miserable for everyone. But for many older adults, the late-summer swelter is more than uncomfortable: It can be downright dangerous.

Aging can affect the body's ability to cool down in the summer heat. Along with certain health problems or lifestyle factors, this may make older adults particularly prone to heat-related illnesses, like heat exhaustion and heatstroke (a severe form of heat illness). Some of the health problems or other factors that may put seniors at increased risk include:

  • Having heart, lung or kidney disease.
  • Having high blood pressure.
  • Having poor circulation or inefficient sweat glands.
  • Taking medications that cause reduced sweating.
  • Being significantly overweight or underweight.
  • Drinking alcohol.
  • Being dehydrated.

Check on older neighbors

When extreme heat hits, the safest place to be is an air-conditioned building. But many people lack the means to keep cool at home. In those cases, visiting an air-conditioned senior center or shopping mall may be an option. Some people may not have a ride to cooler places. That's why if you have an elderly neighbor or relative—particularly one who lives alone—it's a good idea to check in during a heat wave. If you suspect someone is getting sick from the heat, the National Institutes of Health lists these steps to take:

  • Call 911 if you suspect heatstroke. Signs include a fever above 104 degrees; confusion, delirium or combativeness; dry, red skin; a strong, rapid pulse; and fainting. The person may not be sweating, even though it's hot out. Get the person to a cool place (such as a shady area or an air-conditioned room) and have them lie down.
  • Offer water, juice, or other nonalcoholic and caffeine-free fluids. Alcohol and caffeine can increase dehydration.
  • Apply a cold, wet cloth to the skin at the wrists, neck and armpits. These are areas of the body where a cold cloth can help cool the blood and lower the body's overall temperature.
  • Encourage the person to shower, bathe or sponge off with cool water.

Do you know the facts about heat illness? Test yourself with this quick quiz.

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